Istanbul in a day

I arrived at Istanbul’s Atatürk airport the evening before and woke early to spend the day exploring a bit of the city. First, a visit to the grand bazaar where I walked for hours, through endless passageways, perusing booth upon booth of silks, cashmere, garments, wool rugs, leather goods, jewels, spices, you name it! I couldn’t believe a place like this existed. All the store owners were men, all pleasant and seemed in good spirits but not in that forced way that's common among merchants keen to edge the customer from just looking to actually buying something.  I settled on one shop with an array of scarves arranged by fabric type. Standing amongst several Turkish women, whose faces were concealed behind burkas, we looked through the stacks of scarves examining and trying to decide which we preferred. Unlike every day in America, I didn’t feel like a stranger or out of place even though I clearly was a foreigner. There was a general air of respect and reservation that was broken only when the shopper and the merchant would begin to bargain before settling on a final price amount. I purchased a single green cashmere scarf.

After hours of exploring and a lunch of grilled fish and potatoes I headed back to the hotel and upon arrival heard the start of what sounded like a man or men, a mix between a shout and a song - it was the Islamic call to prayer. This musical sound seemed to be coming from everywhere, above me, beside me, but it was in fact sounding from the minarets of the Blue Mosque half a mile away. 

As I spent all day out and about, my jet lag was beginning to kick in and so instead of immediately going to sleep I decided to check if I could schedule a last minute massage at the hotel spa. This way I could relax while being awake. Apparently in order to get over jet lag quickly you should try to operate on the local schedule as much as possible. I scheduled a ‘Sultans Massage’ and was expected downstairs in the spa in 20 minutes.

Now, I’ve have numerous massages before especially as part of my physical therapy for a back situation so I anticipated a different and better or at least foreign version of the massages I was used to. Normally, you strip down to your underwear and jump under the blanket atop the massage table and wait for the therapist to knock on the door while saying ‘Can I come in?’. Only at fancy places the spa table is kept warm, but always there is soft relaxing music playing and you chose what oil scent you prefer: plain coconut, jasmine or my favorite, lavender.

Istanbul's Hotel Sultania in is most beautiful. On arrival they serve Turkish coffee while you check in and are friendly but in a welcoming way, not overbearing or asking too many questions while you fight to stay awake and upright. The location is central enough to be as short walk away from many famous attractions like the Hagia Sofia Museum for one.  Nearby are many restaurants with kitchens open to even past midnight - everyone seems to eat dinner really late so, you can go downstairs at 10pm to find a lively avenue with restaurant patios filled with locals and tourists alike eating and chatting. There are cats here and there, not too shy to approach and brush against your ankles before setting into a corner of one of the stone buildings.

I'm in the hotel spa and it is luxurious. The floor and walls seem to be made out of marble and the robes  from the softest cotton imaginable. I was met by a slim dark haired young woman who, to my delight pronounced my name perfectly as she greeted me then led me to my room. “Take off everything and put this on” she said handing me a tiny black plastic package heat sealed at one end. I wasn’t sure of the contents and she must have sensed my hesitation because she repeated “Put this on, everything else off”. I said “Oh, okay” in a higher than usual pitch. She turned and left closing the door quietly behind her. 

In the package was a tiny pair of underwear, a thong to boot! I burst out in nervous laughter wondering what I really had signed up for. I paused, then laughed again, then began to panic then tried to calm down. “Well, it’s a woman, at least” I reassured myself as I suddenly began to feel very cold. I stood thinking for a while wondering if I could run out to the front desk and switch to a different treatment but I asked for a massage! It was supposed to be just a massage. So then why did I have to wear a plastic thong?

The idea of being naked in front of someone else has always terrified me. In high school when once a week we had to change into white pleated skirts and t-shirts one of three different colors to signify which ‘house’ you were in, I ended my own lunch break prematurely so I could walk all the way down the hall, down the 32 steps, past the auditorium and to the bathroom to change in the privacy of one of the filthy stalls being careful the entire time not to let my uniform touch the grimy floors. This required some acrobatics as there were no hooks on either the wall or the door.

But i’m not a high school girl anymore, growing up on an island that’s most conservative except for during one particular week in the summer - the annual carnival celebrations when every ounce of decorum is completely forgotten! I was an adult, in Istanbul, Turkey! And this was my adventure. It was time to relax and be open to new experiences, and after all my therapist was a woman so it couldn’t be that awkward could it? I quickly disrobed and pulled on the sliver of underwear and turned to jump under the cover that is usually placed atop the massage table but there was none, just a plush towel covering the table. Oh my! So there would be no mystery at all then huh? Just wait for her to come back? Undressed like this? There was a knock on the door and a woman’s voice said “Can I come in?”. I quickly went to the table laid on my back with both arms overlapping against my chest in an attempt to preserve some modesty. “Yes” I said in an even higher pitch than before. 

I don’t remember her name but the therapist was so nice and her manner immediately made me feel a bit foolish for being so terrified in the first place. She didn’t even seem to notice I was only wearing the ridiculous plastic panty. She said to lie on my stomach and then started to rub a floral smelling scrub over my back and shoulders pausing and gently tapping at the scar running the length of my spine. “Are you okay? an accident?” she asked. “No, just surgery, i’m okay now” I assured her. “Good” she said sounding relieved, and continued massaging my arms now and then legs. I soon got over the discomfort of my almost complete nakedness and began to relax. It had been a 16 hour journey the day before and I was realizing the level ofmy exhaustion. This scrub massage was turning out to be just the thing I needed. After some time, probably 50 minutes she asked me to stand up and go to an adjacent room that seemed to also be made entirely in marble, to wash the scrub off. 

This was really a luxurious place! I felt like an awkward princess as I showered and then returned for the second part of the treatment which was the actual massage. After this I was rinsed with warm water poured directly over me from a tub. I was now the main character in a novel. The entire experience was so unexpected and quite amazing actually. Later that evening, feeling very relaxed I flipped through the brochure for the spa and realize the treatment I had was listed as ‘Sultan’s Bath’ not massage, and all the details of the treatment were clearly outlined. I had simply asked the front desk to schedule a massage which was what I was expecting. Had I read for myself the information from the spa, that all the Turkish spa treatments ‘fit for a Sultan’ were in fact baths and purifying scrubs I would have been too embarrassed to even dream of signing up. But it was too late! I had gone and it was the most relaxing spa experience I’d ever had. 

Since then, when traveling I resist the urge to research too much, leaving room for unexpected surprises. Sometimes this has turned out better than others but it’s always an adventure. I wonder what’s yet to come…